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Breaking barriers: Asean youths turn water lilies into cooking fuel

The Philippine Star

KUALA LUMPUR – It was almost 11 p.m. but he was still on high energy, excitedly discussing his hopes and dreams for the business that he started with Filipinos in Victoria, Tarlac.

The product is called “Uling Lily” and Jackie Yap, a Malaysian who finished engineering in 2015, is the founding chief executive officer of HiGi Energy, the company that produces cooking fuel from water hyacinths or water lilies.

How did he get the idea? Yap recounted seeing Cotabato City in the news because of flooding problems and flew there in September of last year with friends to find out what was happening.

“We young guys, we (won’t) lose anything. We (flew) there not knowing Cotabato is a dangerous city,” Yap said.

When they asked around, Yap said the people told them about the terrible flooding problems caused by poor infrastructure and yes, the water hyacinths that clogged the rivers.

“I was living in a particular community and I saw them cook (using charcoal),” Yap recalled. He said the smoke hurt his eyes and he teared up and coughed a lot. “And I only got into the kitchen once. (How much) more (difficult) is it (for those who) cook three times per day?” he said.

Yap said the use of charcoal and firewood, aside from its dangers to the environment due to cutting of trees, could also be harmful to health.

A community doctor, Yap noted, told him that everyday, 10 of the residents would actually visit for a check-up because of problems with their nose and respiratory system.

“(There was) no alternative solution. So I thought, (why not use the water hyacinths) for cooking?” Yap said, adding he actually found a doctorate study about water hyacinths as potential fuel but there was no business out of it yet.

And thus Uling Lily briquettes were born. “We found a way to dry so it would not be too smoky when burned,” Yap said.

The production process is simple: the water hyacinths are chopped, ground and turned into briquettes by the nine Filipino employees the company has in a barangay hall in Victoria, Tarlac.

They provide jobs and extend their services to the public through various activities like offering basic education for children in the community, feeding program and promoting green energy.

The young man, who went on a trip to Laos in December of 2014 for a volunteer program and was deeply touched by children who asked for a pencil and were so happy when his friend handed them one, said there was no turning back on the project that for him could be very beneficial for Filipinos and the 2.6 billion people around the world who need cleaner, greener and cheaper alternative cooking fuel on a daily basis.

“I cried four times in Laos,” Yap told The STAR at the lobby of Traders Hotel here, without elaborating on the moments when his heart was touched.

As for his partners, Yap said he met one of them during an One ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Entrepreneurship Summit (1AES) here in November last year and clicked right after they discussed his project. The rest is history.

His Filipino partners are Zherluck Rodriguez, chief marketing officer; Hazel Pajotagana, chief financial officer; and Ryle Dahilig, chief operating officer. Their chief technology officer is Leon Kee, also a Malaysian. while Katie Dang, a Vietnamese, is creative director.

“The problem exists not only in the Philippines but all over the world. Somebody has to do something,” Yap said, noting that he had actually conceptualized the idea in October 2015 and had the company incorporated in Malaysia In December of that same year after meeting his partners.

According to Yap, Uling Lily can compete with charcoal and firewood because aside from being environment-friendly, the briquettes burn longer, emit less smoke, are easier to ignite, cheaper and have higher energy content.

From now till December, Yap said they are targeting to be present in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao, expand to Cambodia by January to May of next year and export to South Korea and the United States starting June until September of 2017.

But there is much to be done. Yap considers the Philippines the “center” of their target markets and want their main production site to be built here once they get the much-needed funding and other forms of assistance.

They chose Tarlac because they knew the governor of the place and other friends from there. A group that is focused on helping communities and social enterprises, Got Heart Foundation Inc., is also behind them, providing logistics and assistance in local coordination.

In a day, Yap said 660 briquettes were produced and a full-time employee of their company receives P250 daily wage.

They are also served food and allowed “tea” breaks. “We give them water as well. I’m really concerned about water…(you should drink enough water so) your brain and body can function fully,” Yap said, pointing to the blue containers that most refilling stations use to deliver water.

“Every two days they need refill. It’s okay, it’s cheap,” he quipped.

At present, six briquettes cost P8 and “we are thinking about making it cheaper” once they get the support from individuals and groups “who believe in us,” Yap said, adding for the smoke test alone, they would need 1,000 Malaysian ringgit.

But the market is big. In Tarlac alone, 70 percent of the people are still dependent on charcoal. They gain two customers every two days and demand is higher than supply. They have 50 to 80 customers at the moment.

“I want to do good for the people,” Yap said, adding he would like to come back to Cotabato City and make a difference in the lives of people there too.

“I will ask somebody in Cotabato to do it and I will go there once in a while,” Yap said.

During the interview, Yap disclosed he just came back from Silicon Valley where they grabbed a $7,500 prize for their project that won first runner up in the Global Innovation Through Science and Technology competition during the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit last June.

“I believe so much in the success rate of the project,” Yap said, expressing hope that more people would also recognize it.

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